Head on a pike

A gaggle of professional jokesters go about their business, the business of making people laugh. Something they create, which is laughed at by many, manages to offend some powerful forces of malevolence. The retaliation leads to a very fraught situation, and, tragically, death.

No, I’m not talking about the massacre in Paris last month; I’m talking about what happens in my musical, Such Good Friends. While my show is a work of fiction, I based it on real events that happened in American show business in the 1950s. Entertainers, folks that are far sillier than most people, found themselves in some serious trouble. No one should think that insane reactions to comedy can’t happen here, because it did. Nobody should get comfortable with the idea that a stamping down on wits and clowns is a thing of the past, because we just saw how it’s part of our present.

But wait, this is beginning to sound sanctimonious, like the preponderance of blogs and op-eds inspired by the Charlie Hebdo tragedy. You don’t want to read that, and I refuse to go there. But more on avoiding a preachy tone later.

Blacklisting is a blight on our history that has always fascinated me. A Senator, Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, ignited malignant hysteria when he announced he had a list of dozens of Communists employed by the U.S. Department of State. The most successful fear-monger in our history never named those names, but soon the House of Representatives started an investigation into the entertainment industry in which subpoenaed witnesses were forced to name names of people they thought were once or present Communists. If they didn’t, they could be cited for Contempt of Congress and hauled off to jail. If they did, old friends and acquaintances could suffer due to the fear and loathing America had for “friends” of the evil foe, the Soviet Union. And we’re not talking about actual Russian spies. There were very few of those, and none in movies or television. If someone remembered you attending a gathering in which a leftist sang a song, that could bring about the end of your career.

In writing a musical about the persecution of innocent mirth-makers, I sure as hell didn’t want sanctimony to rear its ugly head. The way I see it, a show isn’t a sermon, or a political speech, an exhortation, or a history lecture. I endeavored to show, truthfully, how the blacklist worked, in the most entertaining way possible. For years, I considered writing about the Scoundrel Time, but put off the project until I conceive of a way of making it truly enjoyable for the audience. This isn’t school, or church: Fun is more important than a lesson learned.

Research kept revealing story after story of old friend betraying old friend by naming him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee. That led amity to turn to enmity, and the action of informing led to more guilty feelings than any former Communist was likely to have experienced. When people killed themselves, it was sometimes because they were unable to find work, and other times because they couldn’t live with themselves after fingering others.

Well, what can you do with this unhappy information? One positive emotion that any tale of the era would need is the feeling of camaraderie, the love old friends have for each other. That gave me my title, and I knew I’d need a song celebrating that feeling (my title song). Also, something kept striking me in my research: One of the more famous suicide victims was Philip Loeb, who’d been the leading man on The Goldbergs, one of the most popular situation comedies on television. In addition, I was fascinated to learn how Lucille Ball was accused of being a Red, and the clever way the most popular comedienne on the new medium of TV salvaged her reputation. Comedians, beloved television stars, adored by the masses who were watching every week.

I figured if I focused on funny people, I could allay the seriousness of the situation, and remain true to the history of the 1950s. As I read more, another humorous theme cropped up: they were involved in doing something rather extraordinary, broadcasting live television at a time when the medium was new. There’s plenty of hilarity in that. Now, you could point out that the musical, My Favorite Year, had already depicted the process of putting on a variety show at that time. But, for reasons I’ve never understood, it makes no mention of McCarthy, shows nobody’s name being cleared or not cleared. Over the years, I’ve intentionally averted my eyes from this musical, not wanting it to influence me. Perhaps there are good reasons it omits blacklisting that I don’t know about. Or perhaps this omission limited its success.

Finding enough goofy building blocks to leaven the sadness of personal betrayal and suicide stoked my creativity. I’d have funny folk, involved in an entertaining pursuit, facing humorous technological obstacles, and then the cloud of suspicion and moral quandaries would slowly sneak in. My characters, ever busy coming up with the next hysterical sketch, don’t initially grasp the danger posed by the red-baiting. They think their audience won’t be rubbed the wrong way if they create a number about a court jester who, long ago, jested for another country that’s currently an enemy. And then the subpoenas come. The curtain falls on Act One.

Then we see three wits sinking or swimming in front of the HUAC, and how, once you’re on the blacklist, the only way to work again is to name names to the inquisitors. And if that sounds depressing, rest assured that my characters keep their humor even when the chips are down.

What bothers me about most musical tragedies is that every ounce of humor has been removed from them, as if the audience can’t be trusted to take away a serious point if they’ve spent any time smiling. But life isn’t like that: People often keep their senses of humor through troubling times. If, someday – and I think it’s inevitable – someone writes a musical about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I hope they remember to include lots of jokes. It’ll be truer to the lives the late French wags led, and will make for a better show.

 

 

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